St. Thomas is one of many Catholic schools in the nation that have seen steady increases in Muslim student enrollment.
Catholic colleges and universities nationwide had higher percentages of Muslim students than non-Catholic schools last year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. Trends from the St. Thomas Office of Institutional Research and Analysis show that St. Thomas’ Muslim student enrollment has increased by at least 15 students each year for the past five years. Total enrollment jumped from 79 students in the fall of 2006 to 149 students in the fall of 2010.
Adil Ozdemir, co-director of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, agrees with the study and said it is supported by the 300-level Islam courses he teaches.
Muslim students make up the majority of the courses, Ozdemir said, and the courses are waitlisted and never have less than 25 students.
Ozdemir said he thinks the increase in Muslim enrollment is due to Muslim students feeling comfortable at Catholic universities.
“Muslims are feeling so at home in this institution, because they can practice their faith here,” he said.
He said Catholicism is “100 percent compatible with Muslim faith.” The reason they are compatible could be because the two religions are similar, he said.
“Islam and Catholicism are sister religions. They are coming from the same roots, of what we call Abrahamic monotheism,” Ozdemir said. “We share the same values – freedom, responsibility, accountability – except we are ritually different.”
One ritual that is different is the Islamic prayer ritual. Three months ago, Muslim students were given a prayer room in Murray-Herrick Campus Center adjacent to the faculty dining room where they can eat, pray and meet with other Muslim students.
“Where Muslims pray, there should be no images,” Ozdemir said. “That’s why we’re allowed in this new room, because it does not have any idols or images.”
Junior Fahma Mohamed said when she enrolled at St. Thomas, she didn’t expect to have a place to pray, but she likes the Muslim prayer room.
“Having a room to go to, that’s a lot of privilege right there in itself,” Mohamed said. “Because when you’re enrolling in classes, you know that you’re coming to a Catholic school by choice.”
Sophomore Afnan Alowayyid also likes the room option.
“The university makes it comfortable to practice my religion,” Alowayyid said.
However, she said the required Catholic theology courses made her a little bit uncomfortable.
“To be honest, at the beginning I didn’t really like it. I’m Muslim, why would you want me to take your religion?” Alowayyid said. “One class is enough. You can get what you want and understand it, but I’m not sure about two.”
Mohamed’s perspective of Catholic courses differs from Alowayyid’s.
“When I first came here I had no understanding, and what I did understand about Catholicism, I had so many wrong ideas,” Mohamed said. “It felt like onions, like when you peel it. When am I going to get to the middle piece? It was great.”
Mohamed is one of the 149 Muslim students who enrolled at St. Thomas in the fall of 2010, and the majority of those students were Saudi Arabian.
Alowayyid said she thinks the reason for the high number of Saudi Arabian students enrolling in Catholic schools is due to the King Abdullah scholarship program, a program supported by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that sends Saudi students to America to learn about the culture and earn a degree.
Ozdemir said a few years ago, a group of educators from Saudi Arabia came to St. Thomas and said the Saudi government liked the integrative learning system St. Thomas promoted.
“The religion here is respected,” he said. “There is an emphasis on diversity here.
“Catholic schools do not divide or separate religion from education. When you learn about someone else, their faith, you learn about yourself.”
Hannah Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.